A Flood Of Sewage: What Lessons Need To Be Learned

Along Water Street in Fenton. photo by Diana Linsley, South County Times.

Along Water Street in Fenton. Photo by Diana Linsley, South County Times.

Two leaders in the environmental movement in St. Louis are featured in Don Corrigan’s South County Times article about the Meramec River flooding and its terrible toll. The flood shut down two vital MSD sewage treatment plants in St. Louis County.

The danger of putting any facilities in flood plains is underscored by Kathleen Henry, executive director of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center in St. Louis; and by Heather Navarro executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

by Don Corrigan

An old adage among plumbers holds that no one gives much thought to their bathroom, but if the plumbing fails, they will think about nothing else. But what happens if the entire sewage treatment plant fails?

The Great Flood of 2015 knocked out two sewage treatment plants, one in Fenton and another in Valley Park. This past week, city officials, residents and environmentalists have been deep in thought about the flood, untreated sewage and the rampaging Meramec River near the treatment plants.

“This flood just took everybody by surprise – businesses, residences and the Metropolitan Sewer District,” said Fenton Mayor Mike Polizzi. “The rain hit so hard, and the water rose so fast, MSD had no choice but to start pumping sewage into the river to keep it from going into homes.

“I saw what was going on – it was not quite as bad or disgusting as you might think,” added Polizzi. “In any case, MSD’s people worked hard and I think they did what they had to do.”

The Fenton Wastewater Treatment Plant, located south of a business strip that includes Joe Clark’s Restaurant on Gravois Road, failed on Tuesday, Dec. 29. After water flowed into the control room of the plant, it shut down and raw sewage began flowing into tributaries of the Meramec River.

The Grand Glaize Treatment Plant, located near Marshall Road and 10th Street in Valley Park, shut down as flood waters breached a sandbag levee on Thursday, Dec. 31. Sewage was diverted to nearby streams which ultimately meander to the Meramec River.

Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), which operates the two plants, has been advising the public to avoid contact with the water. It advises thorough washing with soap and water for anyone in contact with flood waters of water in low-lying areas.

“Personally, I think anybody that has much contact with the water in our area should make sure their tetanus shots are up to date,” said Polizzi. “People trying to save their homes and businesses had no choice but to be in contact with water that may have mixed with raw sewage.

“It’s all gone down now. The bathtub has drained,“ added Polizzi. “But there are still pools of sitting water all over. And there was some strange stuff coming down the Meramec River. People need to be careful about coming into contact with this stuff.”

Historic Flood Event 

Earlier this week, MSD officials said water pumps in the Grand Glaize Treatment Plant were working again. They said partial water treatment would start by the end of this week, with full treatment functioning by the end of next week.

The news is not as good for MSD operations at the Fenton plant, which sits nearer to the Meramec River.

MSD crews worked throughout the weekend of Jan. 1-2 to get access to the Fenton Treatment Plant. Temporary pumping was activated this week to help drain the sewer system for surrounding homeowners. Because the Fenton Treatment Plant was six feet under floodwater, the timeframe for getting its treatment functionality back online is unknown at this point.

“Our treatment plants will take a significant amount of time to recover from this historic flood event. The Meramec River will take significant time to recover, as well. We are doing our part by proactively bringing our assets back online as quickly as we can,” said Brian Hoelscher, executive director for MSD

Sewer district spokesperson Sean Hadley said MSD will continue to inform the public as information becomes available. Residents are asked to call 314-768-6260 if they have experienced a basement backup or observe a sewer overflow in their neighborhood.

The amount of raw sewage entering waterways has been in the millions of gallons. MSD has reported the sewage overflow to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), as it is required to by law.

“Grand Glaize is a lot bigger than the Fenton plant, so when it went off line, that was big,” said Fenton’s Polizzi. “I have seen the raw sewage flow going into the waterways at a good clip. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do. I am not sure there was any other choice.

Environmentalists Respond

“I understand people get upset with MSD when raw sewage is dumping into the river,” said Heather Navarro executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “This is much bigger than MSD; this is really a land-use issue.

“Somehow, it has been policy in the St. Louis area to locate lots of things in flood plains – from radioactive waste, to landfills, to sewage plants, to coal ash reservoirs and even commercial development,” said Navarro. “We need to be restoring these wetland areas to handle all the water.

“With climate change, these rain events are going to become more and more of a regular occurrence in Missouri,” noted Navarro. “We are not going to solve the water problem by building higher and higher levees.”

Fenton’s Polizzi said he wonders if unprecedented high water in Fenton may have been due to levee construction protecting Valley Park upstream on the Meramec River.

“They talk about 500-year levees and 500-year floods, but we seem to be getting this kind of event every seven years,” said Polizzi. “I am concerned it is increasing. I understand why Valley Park put up levees to protect their city, but when they do that – the water has to go somewhere else.”

Kathleen Henry, executive director of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center in St. Louis, said most engineers in the past would say it’s logical to put sewage treatment plants in flood plains near rivers where treated water can be discharged.

“We may have to rethink that now,” said Henry. “Given global warming and the climate change going on into the future – and the increasing floods that will result – we are going to have to rethink a lot of past practices.”

One response to “A Flood Of Sewage: What Lessons Need To Be Learned

  1. I think it would be smart to have the sewage treatment plan that isn’t going to flood like this one. I think it would be smart to also get some kind of backup plan for when the sewage backs up like this. Then you won’t have to worry about flooding as much.


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